Community newspapers are often a reflection of the town they cover. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, for instance, plays on that city’s western heritage and has for years appeared to be much more of a community newspaper than its cross-Metroplex rival The Dallas Morning News. Likewise, the stories, photos and opinions expressed on the pages of the Bulletin are uniquely reflective of this area rather than a similar-sized town such as Stephenville or Waxahachie.
Over the past 108 years, as people have wanted to learn about our area, its people, businesses, organizations and activities, they’ve been able to pick up a copy of the Bulletin and get a pulse of the area. Since 1999 they’ve also been able to do so online with the paper’s Web site. Earlier this year, we added another dimension to the site when we opened our stories and columns up to reader comments. That provided another window into the mindset of the community.
However, anyone who has gone online to learn more about the goings-on here, and tried to glean the public’s mindset by reading their comments would probably be a little alarmed about our community. Not only are an overwhelming number of the posts anonymous, but they tend very quickly to jump into attack mode - toward government officials, the media, civic groups and other posters. Rather than creating any type of a dialogue, the comments tend to tear down - the exception being memorials posted for obituaries.
Brownwood isn’t the only town that has message boards that lean to the negative. Both San Angelo and Abilene’s newspapers are addressing the tone of comments on their sites. Our own community had a site a couple years back that fostered a great deal of controversy because of the negative postings. Maybe that’s where we are as a society - unwilling to accept another viewpoint and negative, critical and mean in crushing anyone who might express one.
One of the initial lessons taught in the Dale Carnegie program is the importance of relationships, and how to strengthen them. The first principle outlined in the book “Pathways to Success” as a fundamental rule for handling people is, “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.” That doesn’t mean to ignore mistakes or problems, Carnegie says in the book, but instead seek to understand people. From radio and cable TV talk shows to the comments posted on ours and other Web sites, it’s obvious we don’t seek to understand, but rather tear down.
Some have suggested that it is naïve to think that online readers can create a meaningful dialogue and engage in community journalism - offering stories and opinion pieces about things that are important to them. A quick check of the Bulletin’s community journalism page shows no entries.
The story comments, though, are another matter. We get plenty of those and do our best to make sure that they are at least somehow related to the story they are commenting about, without crossing the line of what’s allowed legally or in good taste. Some other suggestions I have to offer our commentators are:
1. Keep it clean.
2. Don't threaten to hurt or kill anyone.
3. Be truthful. Don't lie about anyone or anything.
4. Be nice. No racism, sexism or any other sort of -ism that degrades another person.
5. Keep it local. Do not post direct links to sites outside of our online newspaper.
6. Share what you know. Give us your eyewitness accounts, background, observations and history.
7. Ask questions. What more do you want to know about the story?
8. Stay focused. Keep on the story's topic.
9. Help us get it right. If you find a factual error or misspelling, e-mail me directly at email@example.com.
Is my plea going to change the way an anonymous public chooses to treat one another? I know that it won’t, but maybe my words - or Dale Carnegie’s - will hit home with someone. When we attack each other, we’re sending the message to everyone with Internet access that we’re a community that cannot get along. We may not all see eye-to-eye, but I bet we have more in common than we let on with our postings.
Bill Crist is associate publisher and general manager of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Wednesday. He may be reached by e-mail at bill.crist@